How to Match Paint Colors to Print Colors

Blob of yellow, green, red and orange paint

Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

If you have ever frustratingly searched for a very specific color to paint a room in your home, and kept looking until you found the EXACT color you wanted, this tip might be for you.

We had an experience a couple of years ago where the specs for a woodworking project called for an exact match of a particular color, which we only had available on a web page. We thought about printing out a swatch of the hue we wanted on a color printer, then taking it to the paint shop so they could do a color match, but there were far too many uncontrollable variables for the result to be exact. (These included the calibration of the printer, the calibration of the color matching system at the paint shop, and other problematic issues.)

Another idea was to determine the exact values that determined the color and take those to the paint shop. Typically these values are displayed in one of four color schemes:

  • RGB (which has values between 0-255 for red, green and blue)
  • HEX (the same red, green and blue values, except in hexadecimal numbers)
  • CMYK (values between 0-255 for cyan, magenta, yellow and black)
  • HSB (which stands for Hue, Saturation, and Brightness)

There are many ways one can get these values for a particular color on a computer screen. One of our favorites is to use a free utility for the Firefox browser called ColorZilla. This handy utility resides in the lower left-hand corner of your browser. Once activated, all you do is hover the mouse over any color, and it will provide the RGB values for the color found at the tip of the mouse pointer.

We soon discovered that, while these are values known to everyone who does web development or works in the printing industry, they're Greek to the paint color industry. In a time where computer generated code seems to operate practically every aspect of human life, one would expect that the machines that generate the amount of colorant to be put into a base to generate a specific paint color would probably use computer-generated code to determine the requisite insertions into the base. If that is the case, one would expect that there would be a way to get these two systems to communicate in a common language. For a number of reasons, the two don't correlate as easily as one might expect.

Fortunately, a solution is available. There are a couple of websites that can convert RGB, CMYK, HEX and other print-style color formats into paint color values (or in some cases, pre-determined paint colors for certain manufacturers). One of these utilities is the EasyRGB Color Calculator. Merely choose the format you wish to use, enter the format specific values, plus the expected light source for the area where the paint will be applied, and you'll see a color swatch with links to color harmonies and commercial tints for a variety of paint manufacturers.

Another option (one which we didn't find quite as useful but wanted to mention, nonetheless) is this RGB to Pantone color converter. This page will convert RGB values to Pantone values, but the values may need to be adjusted depending on the surface and type of paint.